Despite what we hear today from politicians playing the nostalgia card, the "peaceful" fifties weren't so stress-free. While documenting mid-century anxiety in excruciating detail, ephemeral films also show diverse responses to it: erasure, behavior modification, medication.
To those conditioned to think of the fifties as the era of narcotized housewives, The Relaxed Wife's title might be a bit misleading. It's not about calming an anxious housewife so she can face the daily grind without going mad. She's already relaxed (although we're without a clue as to how she got that way). It's her husband (played by an unnamed actor capable of truly amazing facial distortions) that's the one with the problem. As a person, he doesn't seem particularly out of the ordinary, and he certainly isn't a candidate for deep psychiatry. What he's up against, the film seems to say, is the stress and strain incurred by good behavior, conformity and being a parent and spouse. As the film progresses, in fact, it seems more and more like a subsurface view of the bright, "happy-go-spending" world of In the Suburbs (see The Uncharted Landscape disc).
This postwar, post-scarcity environment is wracked by traumas arising out of life at its most ordinary. And lurking in the bushes are pharmaceutical companies ready to medicate anxious citizens. Fifties popular magazines are filled with tips on anxiety management and stress reduction, and media cliches about "Miltown housewives," dependent on a famous tranquilizer.
The Relaxed Wife is densely packed with messages that harmonize with fifties pop-social critiques. There's a plug for self-absorption: "Let the world take care of its own worries. You'll help yourself most by concentrating on your own affairs," and a strong dismissal of perfectionism. Images of clenched fists straining against a rubber strap, signs reminding us to "think," "smile," and "work," sped-up telephone voices, and a feverish male running slalom through poles set against a blank white cyclorama remind us of familiar white-collar nightmares.
Narrated in rhyme (a common affectation in films of the time), the film reaches a peak of optimism and promise: "Today, medical science recognizes, that some folks aren't helped by relaxing exercises. In cases of difficult tension, and nervous apprehension, doctors are now prescribing an ataraxic medicine. It makes those who fear they're about to quit, feel like they're ready to begin, bidding their darkened spirits goodbye, for the calming peace of a cloudless sky. Of all the states throughout this nation, the happiest by far is the state of relaxation. There'll be fewer breakdowns and insomniacs, when more of us have learned to be relaxed. We'll be free to relish the joys of life, no longer tense over daily worries and strife."
Such calls for universal relaxation can't succeed without universal medication. This film was part of Pfizer's promotion campaign for the tranquilizer "Atarax" (hydroxyzine hydrochloride), named after "ataraxia," which, as the film notes, was the Greek word for relaxation. Introduced in 1956, Atarax was highly profitable for Pfizer.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, On Film, Inc. produced promoting national magazines to advertisers, films on interior and industrial design, and many films and television commercials sponsored by pharmaceutical industry. Their remarkable film In the Suburbs can be viewed on The Uncharted Landscape CD-ROM. The form in which The Relaxed Wife's credits appear intimates that the crew worked more collaboratively than hierarchically, that there was something different about this company's production process.
Ken Smith remarks: After you've watched a couple hundred nontheatrical films, you begin to appreciate the quirky ones. Using stylized, minimalist sets, occasionally surreal visuals and a narration that's spoken in rhyming couplets, this film follows a tense, rubber-faced young husband as his unruffled wife teaches him how to relax. It isn't until the film is almost over that we learn that "some folks aren't helped by relaxing exercises," and that Charles Pfizer & Co.'s "ataraxic medicine" may be just the ticket for such stubborn cases. "Of all the states throughout this nation, the happiest by far is the state of relaxation!" Watch for the scene where the young husband turns into a human pressure cooker.
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